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from the July/August 2003 issue

from Borderlines—The Return

In the summer of 1947 the flight to Athens, Greece, from New York's Idlewild Airport-my first flight anywhere-involved many hours of idleness both in the air and on sometimes remote runways along that postwar route. But I was on my way back to the Greece of my childhood after an eight-year absence, and I remember few moments of boredom during those long hours crossing the Atlantic, whether the scene outside the window was cloud forms and tundra vistas in the no man's land of high flying or Quonset hut terminals set out for the time being on weed-strewn ground. And once across the Atlantic, past the hedged-in greenery of England and new-sown farm land on the continent stretching to the sunlit Alps, there was the thrill of rediscovering a Mediterranean landscape, with its drier fields and more casual plots of yellow and mauve before you came to the familiar coastal aquamarine of the Adriatic sea deepening to dark blue for its encounter with the rock-rimmed and sandy-coved Ionian islands offshore from the purple mountains of Albania and Greece.

Yet none of this was as brightly colored as my anticipation made it after my being away from that blue world since before the war. And when we reached the outskirts of the white capital city, it made no difference to me that its whiteness was here and there dominated by the gray stain of recent concrete or that the old landmarks-Lycabettus Hill, the Acropolis, the Royal Gardens, the marble Olympic stadium-seemed isolated in the dearth of other open spaces now given over to new building for refugee quarters or for investment opportunities in monotone cement. It was Greece, and the city was still surrounded on three sides by an emerald sea, and as the ancient poet put it, who could ever drain that sea dry?

I did see signs that it was to be a somewhat different Greece from the one I'd left with my family in 1939 as an eleven-year-old, my father then the American Consul in the northern city of Salonika, which was threatened at the time by the approaching war along with the rest of Europe. For a start, I was now met at the Athens airport by the driver of an American Embassy car who took me to the guest wing of the villa my father, recently returned to Greece as second in command at the embassy, had just bought for the United States government. It is now not far from the center of town, but in those days it was close enough to a stretch of open country so that the owner, afraid to house his family that far out while there was still a Communist guerrilla threat in the region, took advantage of the newly arrived American diplomatic mission to sell it for what both he and my father considered a bargain. My quarters consisted of a bedroom with twin beds, a living room with couches and easy chairs and an elegant empty desk, an immaculate kitchenette, and a bathroom that was so large it gave the veteran flattop swabby in me, the onetime harassed Captain of the Seaman's Head, a momentary shudder. I gazed outside at the neatly trimmed shrubs protecting a lawn that seemed to have no blade of grass out of place and the guard at the gate dressed to the teeth as though for a party, and when the maid in her perfect black and white uniform knocked on the door to ask if I would like some tea and biscuits, I sat there on one of the couches and stared at her so silently bemused she must have thought me out of my mind. Where in God's name was it that the gods had now brought me?

It wasn't very long before I got bored with the isolated luxury of the Villa Lydis (as my father called it), but not before I'd found ways to escape beyond the guarded wall in the company of two free-spirited hedonists on the staff of the embassy named Sally and Marge. Both were survivors of the American Mission for Observing the Greek Elections, game on any excuse to commandeer an embassy car or jeep and take off for one or another deserted beach on the coast opposite Evia or climb up Mount Hymettus for a long view of the neighboring islands or the olive and lemon groves of the Peloponnese, however real or imagined. Sometimes beyond the outskirts of Athens you'd run across a stretch of rusted barbed wire and a sign telling you that there was danger of mines along that section of the shore, and sometimes you'd end up on a stretch of sandy beach that had once been under suspicion of becoming an Allied landing area because it was guarded on the bluff above by a German pillbox that now served as a makeshift toilet, but that close to the city there was hardly any other evidence of the war so recently over or of the one still in progress. You had to travel farther south into the Peloponnese or north beyond Thebes to find the wounded villages left to itinerant animals and a few of the elderly who had returned after yet another Wehrmacht retaliation or the crossfire of a civil war skirmish, and traveling in either direction was still restricted in places to those with official privilege and purpose.

My companions in search of the liberated life, Sally and Marge, had long since discovered retsina and ouzo, new to me but quickly addictive, and they had also discovered, now in their late thirties or early forties, that a reasonable number of Greek men between the ages of eighteen and thirty loved sex with foreign women of mature age who were relatively blonde, open to adventure, and supported by hard currency. They had both learned in due course what so many other foreign women came to know during the decades following: in Greece it usually didn't matter if you were too thin, too tall, too round, or simply not young enough by some standard back home so long as you didn't demand loyalty and so long as you had full confidence in your sensuality, which by their own admission came naturally to both Sally and Marge.

We became ardent if platonic buddies from my first days in the city, I think because they sensed in me a safe subversive much like themselves, tied closely enough to the American Embassy not to be just another anarchic bohemian on the loose in Athens but at the same time a Mediterranean convert with an eye and a heart ready to take in whatever of the local pleasures they could help me accommodate in the interludes between one or another of their erotic excursions. At the beaches we would swim out as a threesome as far as you had to in order to get a wide-angle view of the shoreline, loll there to take it all in for a spell, then swim back hard to build an appetite for the sea's bountiful and (in the right company) aphrodisiac fruit: octopus, squid, clams, crabs, oysters, fresh broiled fish in lemon and olive oil, whatever the seaside taverna under the few remnant pine trees could provide to absorb the sharp anise bite of ouzo or the lingering resin aftertaste of barreled wine. And following the melon or peaches or cherries or all three laid out in style on a communal platter, there was the long siesta on the beach in what shade we could find to restore body and soul for the evening's drive into the neighboring hills and an exchange of lively histories and stories and gossip, some of it actual, some of it surely made up, until talk was stilled by distant images of the changing horizon under the dying sun. Then late dinner on a terrace that allowed us to survey the city lights-Henry Miller's sparkling chandelier-as far as the Sacred Way to Eleusis in one direction and the high road to Pendeli Mountain in the other, before the cognac and half-sweet coffee brought in another kind of stillness as we studied and then debated the legible constellations.

What finally made me restless despite these days of adventure and discovery in Athens was a phone call from Bruce Lansdale, my childhood pal in Salonika who had returned to that city after the Navy as a volunteer worker at the American Farm School, the green paradise I had lived in for three years before the war. Bruce had been assigned to make an inventory of what resources were left after the German occupation of the school, and he wanted to know if I would join him in this work for as long as the spirit moved me during the rest of my summer vacation. I packed a suitcase that afternoon and caught a ride on the next American Mission plane heading for the military airport--as close to the school as it took you to smoke a cigarette, in the argot of local villagers.

Bruce met me in the school jeep that was his when he needed it, reward for his charitable service and what proved to be our access to recreation along the southern shore of Salonika Bay when the local curfew prohibited a trip into town or regions to the east and west that were still under threat by Communist guerrilla forces on the move toward the northern mountains. Once you reached the province of Macedonia it became clear that the Greek civil war was still hot. Bruce reported that earlier in the week one of the school staff returning to his neighboring village passed by the most popular café on the deserted main square and spotted a severed head on one of the outdoor tables set up among others for the evening's ouzo hour. The head belonged to one of the richest landowners in the region. The next day an army squad came into the square to replace that head with one belonging to a bearded guerrilla. The square remained deserted.

My first days at the school brought me a mix of nostalgia and melancholy, of the familiar and the forgotten, though what dominated was a sense of loss. Several of the closest of my childhood friends, the Armenians Kirkor and his brothers, were gone, emigrants to Argentina and the new-world possibilities there, with no evident interest in ever returning to Greece. A few of my other childhood companions were still at the school, those from Greek families still serving on the staff, most of whom had grown so as to be almost unrecognizable and whose questions often remained hanging in the air. My once fluent Greek, especially village Greek, had almost totally vanished, and that early in the summer I could do no more than embrace them in the Greek way, smile as warmly as I could, and try to figure out what each of them was saying to me before turning, embarrassed, to look around for somebody with enough basic English to act the interpreter. It was as though I had crossed the border into a country I recognized as once mine but whose language had changed while I was abroad. And my failure to be able to speak easily with those old friends, to catch up on where they'd been and tell them where I'd been, made our encounters awkward and partial, full of gestures and lapses, this long awaited reunion at moments barely tolerable.

On my tour of the school, I found that the main school building which had been blasted by the departing German occupiers was now restored, and the American director, Charlie House, back in charge and eager once again to exercise his Princeton engineering skills, was already laying the foundations of new works for which he was certain God would provide. The farmland was planted anew, the dairy back in business, and the recruiting of students for the coming academic year was proving better than expected, even if most could offer only a fragmented record of previous schooling and much evidence of uninhibited wartime self-reliance. But the staff was anxious, hard-pressed for essentials, and the unresolved civil war so soon after the end of a harsh enemy occupation left wounds strill unhealed. The village on Mt. Hortiati that had been the first rest station during our pre-war excursions to the mountain top was now a charred ruin commemorating the last minute German reprisal in 1944 that had burned it to the ground. And there were other villages scattered across the Macedonian plains and mountain ridges that had been destroyed or abandoned, whether under the retribution policy of the Wehrmacht and their collaborators or the guerrilla campaign of terror or more recent Greek army clean-up operations.

During our first evening off from inventory work we climbed into the jeep and headed out to the nearest available beach along the southern rim of Salonika Bay. Beyond the city outskirts the coast looked barren, undeveloped marshland or arid fields, and when we turned off the main road and headed toward the sea, the beach ahead, once the liveliest of pre-war playgrounds, seemed desolate. From there, as the dusk faded, the city lights in the distance were far dimmer than what you encountered in Athens, except for the arc of street lights along the quay that ended abruptly beyond the old harbor. And beyond that, there was nothing to see but the dark expanse of what appeared to be yet another no man's land between the city's perimeter and the far mountains that marked the border of guerrilla country. The once open spread of flat land on the road to the village of Veria and Kastania Mountain, briefly accessible after the German withdrawal, was again sealed off to all but Greek army units soon to be aided in their rejuvenated anti-guerrilla campaign by American advisers and Helldiver aircraft. The British military mission was now gone from Greece, leaving behind worse than mixed feelings even among many of their once-devoted local allies. Now it was to be the Americans' turn. That bit of history in the making, and what I was already encountering in the north, began to give the nostalgia of my return an ominous coloring. It would not soon be whitewashed away.

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